Biography (Dictionary of World Biography: Twentieth Century)
Article abstract: Bergson, by rejecting the mechanistic view of life held by the noted positivists of his day, focused renewed attention on the importance of the human spirit, its creative potential, and its inherent freedom, thereby opening new intellectual vistas to many creative artists.
Henri Louis Bergson was born into a sophisticated, multinational family in the year that Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species (1859), a book that profoundly affected Bergson’s thinking and against whose dispassionate view of human existence he reacted significantly. Bergson’s father, Michel, studied piano under Frédéric Chopin before leaving his native Warsaw to pursue a career in music elsewhere in Europe and in Great Britain. There he met Katherine Levinson, a beauty of Irish-Jewish lineage. He soon married her and took British citizenship.
Henri, although born in Paris, was taken to London as an infant and remained there until he was eight, whereupon the family resettled in Paris. There Bergson spent most of his remaining years, taking French citizenship as soon as he turned twenty-one. He attended the Lycée Fontane, later renamed the Lycée Condorcet, from the time he was nine until he was nineteen, the year in which he published his first article, a prizewinning solution to a problem in mathematics, in the Annales de mathématiques (Annals of mathematics).
Equally gifted in the sciences and the humanities, Bergson decided upon entering the École Normale Supérieure to concentrate on philosophy. Earning his degree and license to teach in 1881, he taught first at the Lycée D’Angers, then at the Lycée Blaise Pascal in Auvergne. His first book, Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience (1889; Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness, 1910), appeared when he was thirty, at which time he also completed his doctoral dissertation, in Latin, on Aristotle, which won for him a Ph.D. from the University of Paris.
Returning to Paris in 1891, he married a cousin of Marcel Proust, Louise Neuberger. Bergson taught at the Lycée Henri IV until 1900, when he was appointed to the chair in Greek philosophy at the prestigious Collège de France. Before assuming this position, he had published Matière et mémoire; (1896; Matter and Memory, 1911), which was concerned with how the brain’s physiology is related to consciousness. He found neurophysiological explanations of consciousness frustratingly limited because they failed to explain satisfactorily the roots of recollection.
Bergson had gained considerable attention and some celebrity through his early publications, but his Le Rire: Essai sur la signification du comique (1900; Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, 1911), a short study of the essence of the comic, placed him in the company of the more significant thinkers of his day. Bergson’s theory is that people laugh as a result of a mechanistic impediment, physical or mental, to the usual progression of any activity in life. Using such classic writers as Jonathan Swift, Charles Dickens, and Molière to support and illustrate his contentions, Bergson considered laughter a release of tensions caused by a situation in which the flow of life is impeded by the mechanical.
Following this book was Introduction à la métaphysique (1903; An Introduction to Metaphysics, 1912), in which Bergson defends intuition against the analytical approach of science, which had been adopted by many humanistic disciplines in an attempt to make them seem more scientific and therefore more credible. Bergson considers analysis, dependent on abstract symbols for its expression, to reside outside humans and outside knowledge, whereas intuition resides within them. It is through intuition, Bergson contends, that humans approach reality in the Platonic sense.
The study for which Bergson is best known is L’Évolution créatrice (1907; Creative Evolution, 1911) a work that changed the thinking of a whole generation of creative people. Bergson accepts Darwin’s evolutionary theory but interjects into it the notion of the élan vital, the life energy that Darwin in his mechanistic, analytical approach denies. Perhaps the most influential concept in Bergson’s thought at this time was that humans do not exist in time, but rather that time exists in humans, a notion with which William Faulkner experimented in his writing.
This distinction is at the heart of Bergson’s departure from that considerable legion of intellectuals that was in his day trying to apply scientific method to all intellectual concerns. Never antiscientific, Bergson insisted, nevertheless, that...
(The entire section is 1992 words.)
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Ansell-Pearson, Keith. Philosophy and the Adventure of the Virtual: Bergson and the Time of Life. New York: Routledge, 2001. Explores Bergson’s explosive insights into the idea of time.
Gunter, P. A. Y. Henri Bergson: A Bibliography. 2d rev. ed. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Press, 1986. A useful resource.
Hanna, Thomas, ed. The Bergsonian Heritage. New York: Columbia University Press, 1962. The eleven essays in this collection, drawn from a convention held at Hollins College to commemorate the centennial of Bergson’s birth, present assessments of Bergson’s impact on theological thought and on literature. Also contains reminiscences by people who knew him at the Sorbonne and the Collège de France.
Herman, Daniel J. The Philosophy of Henri Bergson. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1980. A book-length study of Bergson’s philosophy and life.
Kolakowski, Leszek. Bergson. South Bend, Ind.: St. Augustine’s Press, 2001. A concise overview of Bergson’s major ideas, written as an elementary introduction to his work for the general student.
Lacey, Alan R. Bergson. New York: Routledge, 1993. Surveys most of Bergson’s major writings with a focus on Bergson as a philosopher of process and change. Includes a bibliography and an index.
Maxwell, Donald R. The Abacus and the Rainbow: Bergson, Proust, and the Digital-Analogic Opposition. New York: Peter Lang, 1999. Provides insight into the similarities between Bergson’s philosophy and elements of the Proustian universe.
Moore, Francis C. T. Bergson: Thinking Backwards. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Brief and accessible exposition of the content and significance of Bergson’s most influential ideas.
Pilkington, Anthony Edward. Bergson and His Influence: A Reassessment. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1976. Presents an initial overview of Bergsonism, then devotes one chapter each to Bergson’s influence on Charles Péguy, Paul Valéry, Marcel Proust, and Julien Benda. The chapter on Benda contains interesting insights into Bergson’s theory of mobility.
Russell, Bertrand. The Philosophy of Bergson. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1914. Russell, more devoted to an undeviating scientific method than Bergson, looks with considerable skepticism on Bergson’s theories of knowledge and dependence on intuition in shaping arguments. He particularly questions Bergson’s Creative Evolution, in which the theory of the élan vital is fully expounded.
Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Henri Louis Bergson (behrg-sohn) was born in Paris in 1859 of Irish-Jewish parents. As a naturalized French citizen, he enrolled in the École Normale Supérieure in 1878. From 1881 to 1898, he taught at the lycées of Angers, Clermont, and Paris. In 1898, he received an appointment to the École Normale Supérieure and then, in 1900, moved to the Collège de France as professor of philosophy. He remained there officially until 1921 but served France on diplomatic missions to Spain and the United States during World War I. He also served as president of a League of Nations’ committee striving for intellectual cooperation. In 1928, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Poor health restricted his activities after World War I. Late in his life, Bergson became convinced of the essential truth of Roman Catholicism. However, this conviction coincided with the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe. Not wanting to appear to be abandoning his fellow Jews, he put off actual conversion until he was close to dying.
After the fall of France in 1940, the German-dominated Vichy government instituted anti-Semitic regulations in imitation of the Nazis, but it specifically exempted world-famous Bergson from the necessity of complying. Aged and infirm, Bergson spurned such hypocrisy. He resigned the honors bestowed upon him by the French government and, supported by friends because he was too ill to stand alone, took his turn in line before the offices which issued the Jews of Paris certain papers curtailing their liberties and privileges. On January 4, 1941,...
(The entire section is 682 words.)
Biography (World Philosophers and Their Works)
Article abstract: By rejecting the mechanistic view of life held by the noted positivists of his day, Bergson focused renewed attention on the importance of the human spirit, its creative potential, and its inherent freedom, thereby opening new intellectual vistas to many creative artists.
Henri Louis Bergson was born into a sophisticated, multinational family in the year that Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species (1859), a book that profoundly affected Bergson’s thinking and against whose dispassionate view of human existence he reacted significantly. Bergson’s father, Michel, studied piano under Frédéric Chopin before leaving his native Warsaw...
(The entire section is 1984 words.)
Biography (Ethics (Ready Reference series))
Throughout his professional life, Bergson maintained that ethical questions, which are affected by myriad external factors, were fundamentally personal issues. During the latter part of his life, Bergson became absorbed in mysticism and religious thought. In The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, Bergson argued that human progress—including the ethical dimension—would be advanced by those few who gained intuitive insight into the mind of God. These “enlightened” individuals would contribute to the continuing progressive evolution of humanity by providing direction and leadership. Thus, Bergson moved in the direction of the authoritarianism of the Christian tradition in which...
(The entire section is 546 words.)